In the words of MiningMinnesota Executive Director Frank Ongaro, “a significant chunk of dough” is in the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill for “critical mineral research.” That means, with the 8 billion tons of critical minerals already identified in the Duluth Complex — “one of the most significant deposits on the planet,” as Ongaro called it — a potential boon and windfall for northern Minnesota is easy to see in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The act passed the Senate this month with bipartisan support and is awaiting House action.
Northern Minnesota would “absolutely” be an appropriate and good place for investing the minerals funding specified in the bill, Ongaro said in an interview last week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “I can’t at first blush think of what a downside would be.”
Sections 4201 through 4208 of the act include $300 million to the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, for a “critical mineral research facility” and for a “rare earth demonstration facility.” Rare earth metals aren’t found around here but in coal country, including in West Virginia and in the western United States. Both Time magazine and E&E News reported that $140 million of the $300 million total were for rare earth metals research.
That leaves $160 million to survey, find, and map critical minerals like those in northern Minnesota, the metals needed for cell phones, turbines, electric vehicles, and other aspects of our transition to a greener economy and the metals that now, far too often, are imported after being extracted elsewhere in the world under horrific working conditions and with few environmental safeguards.
New funding in the infrastructure bill could build on the research the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources and Research Institute, or NRRI, has been doing for years with the USGS, including funding for “magnetic flyover surveys,” particularly in Northwestern Minnesota: “to see if more critical minerals can be found and to better understand the geology,” as NRRI Executive Director Rolf T. Weberg told the Opinion page last week. The funding has been, and will continue to be, from a number of federal sources, including the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies.
The question the funding is trying to answer, according to Weberg: “Where do the (metals) exist and how can they be extracted without environmental impacts?”
“It’s a much bigger focus on water, on social values, on the critical minerals themselves, how they would be used and how they would be recycled,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a big conversation taking place.”
The infrastructure bill stands ready to further that conversation. The federal government clearly sees the value in understanding domestic minerals opportunities, which the continuing research will help identify.
“Doing this well is of high value because society needs these materials but isn’t always willing to make concessions to get them, and we have to do this well. There’s a good opportunity here, yes,” said Weberg. “How do we do this well and how do we do this so that it’s beneficial, with a triple bottom line of people, profit, and planet?”
It’s not unlike the sort of research the NRRI has been doing for decades, with an emphasis traditionally on Northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore deposits and successful extraction. Looking at those metals needed for a greener economy promises to also include a better understanding of iron ore.
“Iron and these critical minerals are absolutely inextricably linked because you can’t do anything in Minnesota without hitting iron first. And when you hit iron you have to get rid of it to get at the other things,” Weberg said. “By helping our game in minerals in general, start with iron. The opportunities for Minnesota magnify big time because we’ll make higher-valued products in the state, keep that value in the state for reinvestment, and we will be more competitive on a global scale. The global minerals community has much higher expectations than in the past.”
It’s important to note that the NRRI isn’t advocating for any specific funding, including what may end up in the infrastructure bill. “We (are) not advocating for anything but good science, and that’s what we’re participating in with the USGS and other colleges around the country — to really bring a holistic approach to this so we do it well and do it right if we do it.”
The USGS-led magnetic flyover surveys have been ongoing for three years, said George Hudak, director of the minerals and metallurgy group at NRRI. The focus the first year was on the rare earth metals found away from Northeastern Minnesota, so the NRRI wasn’t involved. Critical minerals like those in Minnesota were the focus in years two and three and will be again next year, Hudak said. There are 35 elements in total being researched.
Of course, in the view of Ongaro and his pro-mining group, “There’s no need to wait around” for more research before successfully expanding mining in Minnesota to include copper-nickel and the extraction of other similar-type metals.
“We know what we have,” Ongaro said. “We know that these companies that submit mine plans and go through environmental review and permitting, if they meet the standards and can get a permit they can process this stuff. … We know that if you mitigate risks, we can mine cobalt and we can mine nickel. We can make a significant contribution right now. We don't have to wait for this research. What we have to do is get an administration that makes a decision that, one, yes, we want to mine domestically and have a domestic resource, and two, no, we’re not going to consider crazy ideas of taking entire watersheds off potential development or putting withdrawal moratoriums in place for decades. It’s that simple.”
Mining minerals — whether iron ore, rare earth, or critical metals — is never simple. But it is necessary if we plan to continue toward a greener economy.
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act promises to help feed the necessity — and if it results in tens of millions of dollars of investment in and a boon for northern Minnesota, well then, in the words of Ongaro, “that’s wonderful” and “would be welcome.”